As we prepare for 2022, we wanted to share with you a list of our staff’s favorite essays from the past year that they did NOT commission themselves or that they think cover a topic that deserves a second look.
Why I Stopped Writing About Syria, by Asser Khattab
Riada Asimovic Akyol, Contributing Editor
Among so many informative, eloquent pieces published in New Lines this year, this one I think I will actually never forget. It hit so many buttons and allowed so many people to be seen like never before. I caught myself nodding so many times while reading it, and I know a lot of people from the Balkans could understand what Asser was sharing. Others could learn with humility. The way he wrote about growing up “surrounded by people who have never experienced the joy of peaceful tranquility,” thinking that was the normal, and both the vulnerability and confidence with which he wrote about different challenges, as well as his human and professional yearnings and aspirations, were powerful and inspiring. Many conversations in open, and behind closed doors, will from now on be held, with employers, between employees, among friends, across the borders thanks to Asser’s piece. I am thankful for New Lines for publishing it.
How Arabs Have Failed Their Language, by Hossam Abouzahr
Kevin Blankinship, Contributing Editor
After the requisite boilerplate about how hard it is to choose favorites, about how every essay adds something to knowledge, etc., let me say that his is the piece I liked most from 2021. The reason is that it surprised me. It surprised me not because it was new to me: As an Arabic professor, I’ve heard who knows how many catfights about “diglossia,” namely high versus low (colloquial) varieties of Greek, Chinese, Serbian and other languages. What surprised me was how fresh the wounds are. For a quarrel looping back a thousand years, when Arab linguists tried to check “pollution” from non-native speakers, especially Persians, by setting up rules of grammar, I was stunned to see how much it agitates today. Abouzahr’s essay came out and so did the partisans. Formal Arabic is the Arabic of Islam, some said: the Arabic of the Qur’an, of classical poetry. But, said others, colloquial Arabic is the Arabic of hearth and home, of jokes and secrets, of friendship. Could it not, I thought as I watched the skirmish, be both? In the spirit of Christmas, isn’t there room for all the Arabics at the inn? A naïve thought that softens the majesty, the Whitman-like container of multitudes and, what’s more, one that misses how real language is used by real people and how it can’t be everything to everyone. Oh, well, let the fight go on, then.
The ISIS War Crime Iraqi Turkmen Won’t Talk About, by Hollie McKay
Courtney Dobson, Senior Editor
In this essay, Hollie McKay reports on women in Iraq who have been “disappeared” by the Islamic State group, the group’s use of rape as a weapon of war and how minority communities struggle to heal and come to terms with the stigma associated with sexual violence.
It is a haunting piece, but McKay masterfully conveys the anguish and pain that comes with sexual violence, not just for the victim, but also for their loved ones trying to help. “Through the gap in the door flap,” McKay writes, “I noticed that scores of men and boys had lined up outside, maintaining a respectful distance from the distraught women but with curiosity etched into their sun-kissed faces. They wanted to be involved somehow, to be part of the healing process, to remind us that men were not the enemy — twisted men were the enemy. These were the fathers and brothers and sons, the nephews and neighbors.”
McKay’s essay resonates for communicating the universal need for support, connection and justice, while also laying bare why these don’t come easily. Published a few months after New Lines launched, this essay left a deep impression on me.
How I Escaped China’s War on Uyghurs, by Tahir Hamut Izgil
Rasha Elass, Editorial Director
When we launched New Lines we wanted to cover themes and stories from beyond the geographic Middle East. The oppression of the Uyghurs in China struck me as an underreported story in mainstream media because it hardly featured first-person voices from the Uyghur community. So I got to work and found Tahir Hamut Izgil, a Uyghur poet who tells a story with moving prose and nuance. His essay about the chilling effect of a document that the Chinese authorities require members of the Uyghur community to fill out is both simple and profound, capturing a Kafkaesque reality that is often lost in the daily coverage of foreign affairs. Months after we translated and published Izgil’s essay, other media outlets followed suit. To us this is a triumph, evidence that we are already creating new lines in international reporting.
A Castle in the Air: Trekking the Secret Mountain Paths of Yemen, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Anthony Elghossain, Contributing Editor
Mountain men tell their stories. In Yemen, some folks speak of “an ancient city” atop a mountain. “What,” asks Tim Mackintosh-Smith after hearing them, “is really at the top of Jabal Balq?” To answer this question, he quests through myth, memory and the mind for a “castle in the air.” Is it a place? Maybe. Is it a journey? Yes. Having always gotten along with and been fascinated by folks in the mountains and hills, I was interested in reading this piece as soon as it was in our pipeline. And I loved how our writer came back for some “unfinished business.” Writing is about the quest. So, too, is life. Our writer captured those truths in this piece.
After America: Inside the Taliban’s New Emirate, by Fazelminallah Qazizai
Hassan Hassan, Editor in Chief
My choice of a favorite essay is to illustrate part of why we established New Lines in the first place. It was a dispatch by Fazelminallah Qazizai from a Taliban-held area, published four months before the Taliban would take over the country as fast as their trucks could drive through towns and provinces. If you read that story, nothing about what happened in the summer would come as a shock to you. After the Taliban’s takeover, it was easy for journalists to go through their old notes and write compelling stories about what they had witnessed in the months and years before, to make sense of what unfolded. It is harder to do that before the event, and Qazazai did just that. He also did it really well. The piece should be a template in how dispatches should be done. Qazazai was not parachuted into the country to come back with a piece from there. He is an Afghan journalist who actually knows the terrain, the society and history, and who goes to a Taliban area and eloquently captures and reconstructs the situation there.
The Key to Understanding Iran Is Poetry, by Muhammad Ali Mojaradi
Tam Hussein, Contributing Editor
Muhammad Ali Mojaradi in his essay is right: The key to understanding Iran is poetry. In Shiraz and Isfahan you see beggars recite Hafez and children hawking for money with birds picking couplets from small envelopes trying to tell your fortune. Perhaps it’s just Frank Miller’s “300” or the politics of the region that makes its peoples appear to have a culture built on hate and cruelty. But that is far from the truth. It has ambiguity built in, abundant variations on love, mysticism and much, much more. It just gave me an appreciation as to how all-encompassing Persianate culture is, including Iran, central Asia, Afghanistan and the subcontinent.
The Wandering Alawite, by Adnan Younes
Faysal Itani, Associate Editor
This was, as far as I’m aware, the best if not the only piece by a constituent of Syria’s mass murderer about his and his coreligionists’ implication in Bashar al-Assad’s crimes. I think it took tremendous intellectual courage to reflect on what drew Syria’s Alawites to support this regime, but it also posed an uncomfortable challenge to readers who understandably deplore any and all support for the war criminal Assad. It was difficult to write and difficult to read, because of its ability to humanize and contextualize horrible choices by Assad’s supporters and detractors alike. It was a tragic story in the most literal and compelling way.
A Multigenerational American Story of Immigration and Return, by Rasha Elass
Ola Salem, Managing Editor
A topic we often visit at New Lines is identity. Over the past year, we’ve run a number of first-person pieces looking at how environment and ancestry have shaped writers’ identity and how the answer is usually far more complex than a quick answer to the question, “Where are you from?” One story I found to be particularly fascinating was Rasha Elass’s piece in which she wrote about her Syrian great-grandfather who moved to America, carved a life for himself and later created a family of his own, only later to uproot his children and move back to Syria and face an attack from the French.
Gone to Waste: the ‘CVE’ Industry After 9/11, by Lydia Wilson
Chris Sands, South Asia Editor
The legacy of 9/11 has dominated my life and career. As a journalist for local newspapers in the U.K. in the weeks and months after the attacks, I saw and heard the racist backlash against British Muslims. Later, as a young reporter in the Middle East, I witnessed the daily indignities Palestinians suffer under Israeli occupation. But it was while living in Afghanistan for almost a decade that I came to understand the true folly of the countering violent extremism industry — a money-making enterprise perpetuated by governments, international NGOs and private companies in the guise of curbing Islamic militancy. Lydia Wilson’s article brilliantly details how this house of cards was built to ignore the social ills and legitimate political grievances that lie at the root of what was once called the “war on terror.”
The Bandit Warlords of Nigeria, by James Barnett
Kareem Shaheen, Middle East and Newsletters Editor
One of the things I was looking forward to the most when we started New Lines was giving the space to writers to explore stories that haven’t been told in the mainstream media. Too often, the rich tapestry of our lives and societies are obscured rather than illuminated. This piece is a fascinating investigation into an untold story that has long been neglected in favor of the “sexier” stories of Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria. It is about the farmer-herder conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives, has been exacerbated by climate change and is destabilizing important parts of Africa’s most populous country. The color and fascinating exchanges in the piece, chronicled through Barnett’s exclusive access to the bandit warlords, make this unique investigation shine.
Where the Russian Gulag Once Thrived, Life Remains Isolated, by Owen Matthews
Michael Weiss, News Director
Believe it or not, one of our best essays this year grew out of the field research journal for a forthcoming spy novel. Owen Mathews spent 10 days touring the remains of the Gulag Archipelago — the slave-labor camps Stalin built to punish to send his enemies (and quite a lot of his friends) in the Russian Arctic. Whole communities and cities sprung up around these grim “colonies” of the 20th century, which helped industrialize the Soviet Union at the price of around 6 million souls. As one might expect, this architecture of atrocity has been left to rot or freeze or be swallowed up by the taiga. Matthews, an accomplished historian and biographer, travels to parts unknown and unremembered with an eye for detail and — no small trick given the circumstances — a sense of humor.
How an Email Sting Operation Unearthed a Pro-Assad Conspiracy—and Russia’s Role in It, by Michael Weiss and Jett Goldsmith
Brian Whitaker, Contributing Editor
A moment of light relief in the weird world of conspiracy theorists. Paul McKeigue is a university professor who denies the Assad regime’s chemical attacks in Syria and claims that those who died in them were executed by rebel fighters in a gas chamber. He got the gas chamber idea from an American who had a dream about it after eating anchovy pizza shortly before going to bed. McKeigue considers himself a smart guy, so when a mysterious emailer contacted him using the name “Ivan,” he assumed “Ivan” was working for Russian intelligence and began passing him information – mainly about people who disagreed with his conspiracy theories. But “Ivan” was neither Russian nor an intelligence agent – the professor had been caught in a sting.
An Elegy for Afghanistan, by Habib Zahori
Lydia Wilson, Contributing Editor
The piece is everything I want an essay to be: personal, informative and visceral, communicating a raw experience while simultaneously expressing far bigger themes about humanity and war. We published it at a time when all eyes were on Afghanistan, after the Taliban took control once coalition forces had withdrawn. For me it’s pieces like this that really cut through the immense amount that was being published at that time on this subject; it was so well written and based on so much personal and intimate knowledge. And his love for Afghanistan – and the heartbreak of that love — came through powerfully.
In Search of African Arabic, by Vaughn Rasberry
Faisal Al Yafai, Executive Editor
It was always going to be difficult to choose one essay over the others, and many of the choices of the team could easily have been my first picks. But Vaughn Rasberry’s essay on the influence of the Arabic language in Africa stands out for me because it explores such a rarely considered subject.
Rasberry believes, as I do, that African histories cannot be told without understanding the role of Arabic in shaping the political, social and literary environments of many of the countries and civilisations of the continent. The flip side is also true: that the Arab world cannot understand itself without reference to the African continent.
As Rasberry points out, there is a vast corpus of literature in African countries written in Arabic, much of it under-explored – some, no doubt, still undiscovered. Hidden histories of the African continent and the Arab world are in those texts, waiting to be sought out. Without it, both regions will only know half of their own stories.